Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“Hallowed be your name.” (Luke 11)
It’s been a contentious week, to say the least. It all started on Monday when the New York Times published a recipe for chicken salad that concluded by suggesting that it be served on a bed of organic lettuce. Apparently that hit a sensitive nerve for some readers, who quickly posted comments online complaining about the moralistic overtones of prescribing organic lettuce.
Things only got worse the following day, when the Style Section carried a story about a dinner party in London where the table decorations included fresh persimmons. Again, the comments poured in: persimmons! In London, in July! Can you imagine the carbon footprint of such a thing!
And so it went for the whole week. Faced with such disheartening controversy, some Americans did what Americans do this time of year to escape: they hit the road for the proverbial summer road trip, which of course often involves becoming houseguests somewhere of friends or family, which has its own set of pitfalls. For, as you know, being a houseguest is something of an art. It involves showing deference and respect to one’s host, and to everyone in the household. It means being grateful for whatever is given and shared—for meals, local sight seeing trips, long conversations, and finally a bed at night. It means helping out when help is wanted, and becoming discretely invisible when one’s presence is not desired.
If you think about it, road trips have the value of reminding us that in the end, we are all always guests in this life—if not houseguests, then nevertheless guests in God’s creation. One of the deepest and yet most forgotten realities of the human condition—and one that we affirm everything we speak of the creator God—is that the world is not of our own making. It is given to us as a place where we dwell at God’s invitation, who maintains title and claim to it. We are guests—sojourner is the biblical word—in a creation where we have to live as respectfully and gratefully as in any friend or relative’s home. We are sojourners: temporary inhabitants of a world that is not our own.
These thoughts about sojourning are the context from which I approached Jesus’ teaching about prayer in today’s gospel. When the disciples ask him to teach them to pray, he offers them the words we have come to call “The Lord’s Prayer” (although you’ll notice that the version in Luke is rather abbreviated compared to what we will say together later in the service—just a reminder about the complexity of religious language).
In any case, what struck me about these words this particular week is how much they speak to our status as sojourners in God’s creation. They show, for example, the telltale respect and honor due to a host: “hallowed be your name.” They take nothing for granted, acknowledging that generosity lies behind everything we have: “Give us our daily bread.” They exhibit an awareness of the careful dance of tolerance and forbearance necessary to live in community: “Forgive us as we forgive those indebted to us.” This is a prayer for someone who knows that his place in the world is tenuous, made possible only by God’s generosity and gift. It is the prayer for someone who sees the world as a place in which she is a sojourner—a guest, a visitor, a temporary lodger.
This reading of the prayer is also echoed in the verses that follow: there Jesus tells of a man who has houseguests of his own, but has nothing to offer them. So following the rules of hospitality he goes knocking on his neighbor’s door to find something to lay before his guests. And even though the neighbor is already closed in for the night, he gets up to respond to the host’s urgent request out of a sense of obligation. The sojourner must be provided for, inconvenient though it may be.
Now, as I pondered it, that word “sojourner” caught my attention, and turned my thoughts to the life of someone who actually took it as a name: Sojourner Truth, the 19th century abolitionist and promoter of women’s rights (her picture is in today’s service bulletin). She was born Isabelle Baumfree, a slave in a Dutch-speaking household in New York state. She eventually earned her freedom, and began a life as an itinerant preacher and advocate. At one stop along the way, she was asked by someone what her name was, and by way of acknowledging her new freedom, she responded “Sojourner, I am Sojourner.” Asked her last name, she thought a moment, and answered, “Since God is my one master, and God’s name is truth, that is my name as well. I am Sojourner Truth.”
So in that name, resides a remarkably succinct statement of whole of who we are as human beings. The truth is that we are guests in a world created by God, and like guests in a home not our own, we are accountable to God as our host for our behavior within it, and to one another as fellow travelers. (In that regard, you may have seen this week the op-ed piece that our own congress woman, Deb Haaland, wrote, observing that from a Native perspective, the question of who rightly claims this land as their own is a highly ambiguous one, given our common history.) In fact, we do not any of us own this world, nor anything in it. It is only ours to share—if you take account of the creator God. And so we are not entitled to declare unilaterally who is and who is not welcome in it or any part of it. We hold our sojourning status together as a common identity, and so no one of us has any greater privilege than another.
And not only are we sojourners in a land not our own, but we dwell in it only with the proviso that we will share with our host a commitment to the truth and honesty that makes our shared life possible. Aren’t those two of the most foundational lessons we try to instill in our children? When a two-year old shouts “Mine!” and grabs a coveted toy away from a playmate, don’t we intervene to say, “No, we have to share.” And when a teenager tries to weasel out of the truth about what he or she was up to the night before, don’t we say, “Don’t lie: just tell me the truth.”
When we pray the words Jesus taught us, we often hear them as essentially pastoral in nature: personal, individual, even private. But as I hear them today, they are a prophetic voice, reminding us of our place as guests in God’s creation; chastening our pride at presuming to take for ourselves what is not rightfully ours; cautioning against the excess of greed; and reprimanding our tolerance of deceit and corruption. They are, in short, words about truth, taught by Jesus to us as sojourners in an alien land. Amen.